How Suburbia (Had) Shaped My Perception of Bicycling

By Whitney Miller

My childhood experience of bicycling was not unusual. It’s a story that many will find familiar: growing up in suburbia on a dead-end street off of a semi busy road, my parents taught me how to bicycle. And like many children, I stayed only on my street and its sidewalk. I did not bike to friends’ houses or to the park, because I would’ve had to use a busy main road that my parents taught me was dangerous. As the neighborhood kids got into their teenage years, bicycling became less “cool,” and driving became the prized rite of passage. Because of this, and the fact I was one of the youngest kids on the block, by the time I reached graduate school at 25, I had not sat on a bike in 13 years.

I was discouraged from using a bicycle as a mode of transportation due to a fear of traffic collision that my parents instilled in me. Bicycling was presented to me as an activity more for entertainment and recreation than a means of transport. Ironically, my parents grew up in 1960s Camden, New Jersey, which they later described to me as a place that cars respected children on bicycles and as an overall much safer place than it is today, with roadways that are more neglected and a crime rate that is higher. They used their bicycles to go to local stores, the movies, friends’ houses, and other social activities. However, part of the escape from the city to a quiet suburban life was accepting the car as the dominate mode of transportation. Bicycling with vehicular traffic was an activity to be left behind in the city, and so I wasn’t taught how to navigate roads on a bicycle by my parents. Downtown was only a little over a mile from my house along with a park and elementary school; however, traveling by any means other than car was considered dangerous.

Bike path that led to nowhere

When I was around 10 years old, a bike path was installed on one side of the main road that was adjacent to my street. However, the mile long path led only to athletic practice fields. While not necessarily negative, it reinforced the idea in my mind that bicycling was strictly a recreational activity. There were no bicycle lanes on local streets, but I did occasionally see bicyclists riding on the shoulders.

Interning at the NJ Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center

At 25, I began my graduate academic career at Rutgers Bloustein in the fall of 2014. I am currently employed as a Research Assistant at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center (VTC). Because of the Center’s focus on improving bicycle and pedestrian activity, it opened my eyes to the sheer number of people who use the bicycle as a mode of transportation every day. Part of my role is to be an Ambassador in Motion. It’s essential, then, that I’m knowledgeable about bicycle and pedestrian safety and able to teach others. Newly inducted Ambassadors took Traffic Skills 101 with the League of American Bicyclists. The course required us to ride in the street with traffic and learn how to safely navigate the road, learning proper hand signals, how to switch lanes, and steering your bicycle to avoid unexpected objects. As someone who grew up the way I did concerning bicycling, I never saw myself riding in the street. Learning that I had to do this scared me, but at the same time I thought it was about time that I face this fear.

For more than a decade, I hadn’t given much thought to bicycling. With a fear of traffic collision instilled in me, I thought that it was very risky to ride on the street and those that did so were either brave or ill-advised. Surprisingly, I found out that my perception of the number of bicycle crashes versus the reality is drastically different. According to the U.S Department of Transportation, in 2012 only two percent of motor vehicle traffic fatalities involved a bicyclist, and only made up two percent of traffic injuries during the year. I felt perfectly safe during my five mile bike ride around New Brunswick during the Traffic Skills 101 training, and saw that cars generally are not “out to get me.” By exuding confidence, properly signaling, and using reflectors (a front light and a rear light at night) cars and bicycles can safely share the road. Being more comfortable with bicycling has made me seriously consider fixing my own bike and using it to travel locally. Time will tell whether or not I make this a reality. But most importantly, I’ve conquered my fear of bicycling on the street feel confident about my ability to ride wherever I want.

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